Reading the Bible Christocentrically: Rescuing the Ark Narrative from Enlightenment Reductionism

Interpreting OT history is often a confusing task for the church. How do you apply Israelite history to the modern church? There have been two dominant attempts to resolve this tension: allegory and historical-grammatical method. Allegory arose mainly with people who deeply believed the OT was of value to the church and about Christ, so they struggled to read it as Christian scripture. Their difficulty over the literal sense of the text led to an allegorical, spiritual interpretation of the text that sought to raise the literal sense to a higher plane. Historical-grammatical method deeply values the literal sense of the text, employing a kind of scientific method to read the text and find out what it meant in its own time. Neither adequately accounts for the complete message of the Bible as a work about Christ. A Christocentric hermeneutic should be used instead of allegory or just historical-grammatical method.

Both the allegorical approach and the historical-grammatical method generate similar outcomes for the application of OT history. An allegorical approach basically de-historicizes the OT. On the other hand, the historical-grammatical approach can cancel out the OT as Christian scripture because its history meant something to Israel at the time, but it is difficult to see how it applies today. Those who subscribe to this kind of method usually only see application as learning from history so you do not repeat it (i.e. moralism).

Can the Old Testament be read in its literal sense and still be of value to a Christian audience? Allegory says, “No,” and historical-grammatical method does not know. The Bible answers this question with a “Yes,” and that yes is Jesus Christ. The entire OT is about Jesus (Luke 24:27), and all of history points to Jesus (Eph. 1:10). This means that OT history is about Christ and moving towards Christ. Christ is Abraham’s seed, so those in Christ are offspring of Abraham, heirs of the Israelite promises, and part of the vine of Israel (Gal. 3:29; Rm. 11). That means that Israelite historiographic literature is Christian historiographic literature. Jewish heritage is Christian heritage in Christ. Therefore, Christians cannot read Israelite history as if they are reading someone else’s mail. In order to read OT history as Christian scripture, the reader must read the narrative Christocentrically. All of the Old Testament is pointing to Christ, and if we are in Christ then it is pointing to us mediated through Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). The Old Testament does not first and foremost apply to the Christian; rather, it first applies to the Christ, and then it is mediated to the Christian. This means a typological, Christological reading of the Bible as a whole. The Bible is one book, and the Old Testament is the first part of that book. The little narratives should not be examined apart from the big narrative. Jesus and the apostles seemed to use this strategy. An analysis of the ark narrative of 1 Samuel 4-7 will demonstrate the deficiencies of allegory and historical-grammatical method, as well as the value of Christocentric reading.

THE BATTLE (4:1-18)

Israel goes to battle with the Philistines at Ebenezer and is defeated. In Deut. 28 there is a warning of cursing for disobedience. Israel’s routing at the hands of the Philistines is described in terms of a covenant curse. How had Israel broken the covenant? In the context of 1 Samuel, the gluttony and sexual immorality of Hophni and Phinehas and Eli’s failure to restrain them was one cause for the defeat (3:12-13). Another reason was idolatry (cf. 7:3, Psa. 78:58ff.).

The Israelites propose to bring the Ark of the Covenant, the presence of Yahweh, into the battle in order to be saved. The ark was there for the victory at Jericho (Joshua 6), so the people try to use it here as a good luck charm. The ark does not help. The Philistines win, take the ark of Yahweh and kill Hophni and Phinehas. Yahweh is being led away captive by a foreign army, and his priests lie slain on the battlefield. When Eli hears about the capture of the ark he falls over backwards and breaks his neck because he is so fat and old. God’s judgment has fallen on Eli for his sins.

ICHABOD (4:19-22)

Eli’s daughter-in-law, the wife of Phinehas, is pregnant. When she hears the report she goes into premature labor and gives birth. She dies as a result of the birth, but before she does she names the boy “Ichabod” because the “glory has departed from Israel.” The ark, the presence of God, has gone into exile (galah). This word for “departure” is a word used often for the exile of Israel and Judah (2 Kg. 17:6, Isa. 5:13, Jer. 1:3, Ezek. 12:3, etc.). Yahweh is in exile.

GOSPEL (5:1-12)

The Philistines place the ark in Dagon’s temple before Dagon, as if to say Yahweh is bowing in defeat to worship Dagon. The next day the Philistines enter the temple to see their god lying prostrate before the ark of Yahweh. Dagon is worshipping Yahweh. The Philistines have to pick their god up (cf. Psa. 115; Isa 46:1-4). When the Philistines enter the temple early the third morning they see Dagon has fallen to pieces. His head and hands are cut off, and he lies on the ground defeated before Yahweh.

Within the larger narrative of the Bible the ark narrative is clearly a foreshadowing of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The warning of the covenant is exile for disobedience (Dt. 28:41-64). The people of Samuel’s time deserve captivity and exile. But what happens is surprising. The people are not taken into captivity, but Yahweh himself goes into captivity to “serve other gods, which neither you nor your fathers have known — wood and stone.” Yahweh takes the curses of the covenant on Himself. This is a pattern recognizable within the larger narrative. He has been defeated and is forced to serve a foreign god as a captive in exile (i.e. Samson, Manasseh, Israel in Babylon, etc.). Yet, the gospel truth of the New Testament is seen here because Yahweh is a God who brings victory out of defeat and life out of death by substituting Himself for His people.

The gospel promise of Genesis 3 is being carried out in a foreign temple. God promised in Genesis 3:15 that the seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent while at the same time bruising his own heel. From that point forward God started crushing heads, and this points to God’s salvation through the seed of the Woman and His victory over the serpent. In 1 Samuel, the Philistines wake up on the third morning to the crushed head of Dagon, and in the context of Samuel this anticipates another Philistine head crushing. The seed of the woman, the Messiah, is prefigured in a little shepherd boy who puts his hand in a bag and slings a stone that crushes the forehead of the Philistine champion Goliath (1 Sam. 17:49-51). The humiliated shepherd boy defeats the exalted giant just as the humiliated Yahweh defeats the seemingly victorious Dagon.

This is the gospel of Jesus Christ. God takes on himself the covenant curses and judgments. He substitutes himself for his people. Jesus is taken captive by a foreign army. Jesus is humiliated by the Gentiles. Yet, what seems to be a defeat for Jesus ends up being his victory. He dies on one day. He lies in the tomb on the next. And early in the morning on the third day he is raised from the dead and crushes the head of the serpent. Humiliation leads to victory, which leads to exaltation. If one reads the Bible holistically, centered on its fulfillment in Christ, then the ark narrative clearly foreshadows the gospel event. In isolation, this passage may look like an historical event that simply shows Yahweh’s superiority to the gods of the nations, but in the grand storyline of the Bible this event is much more than a demonstration of Yahweh’s superiority. This victory of Yahweh over a god of the nations points forward to THE victory of Christ over the gods of this age at his crucifixion and resurrection. And it is no coincidence that Yahweh gains his victory on the morning of the third day. After the defeat of Dagon, Yahweh attacks the Philistine cities with plagues, tumors. This is a recapitulation of the Exodus. Captivity in a foreign country brings plagues upon the enemies and their gods. The Philistines devise a plan to send the ark away.

EXODUS (6:1-18)

After seven months, they decide to send the ark back. The priests warn them not to send it back “empty.” This echoes the language of Yahweh’s promise to Moses concerning the Exodus, “And I will give this people favor in the sight of the Egyptians; and it shall be, when you go, that you shall not go empty-handed (Ex 3:21).” They decide to send it back with five golden tumors and five golden rats because the Philistines have five major cities. They send the ark back, and it comes to Beth Shemesh.

CONCLUSION (6:19-7:17)

Yahweh strikes the men of Beth Shemesh because they look “in the ark of Yahweh.” They get rid of it, and the ark ends up staying in Kirjath Jearim for almost a hundred years before David brings it up to Jerusalem, after defeating the Philistines (2 Sam. 6:2). The ark stays in Kirjath Jearim for twenty years until Samuel issues a challenge and the people actually turn back to Yahweh. They do battle with the Philistines and win because Yahweh fights for them.

A typological, Christological hermeneutic is necessary to read the scriptures. God indeed works in patterns in history. These types find their fulfillment in the anti-type, Jesus Christ. The Bible says that all of God’s promises find their “yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). One huge pattern of the scriptures is the exodus motif. Israel is in bondage as captives in Egypt. In their humiliation, God hears their cries. Israel is born as a nation through the plagues, the Passover and their release. They loot the Egyptians as they leave. In the wilderness, they sin against God, and many die under judgment. The following generation, those twenty years and younger, conquer the land of Promise and drive out their enemies. This exodus motif is found in the ark narrative. God’s presence is taken away captive to a foreign land. He is forced to serve another god. He defeats the god of that nation. He sends plagues on the land. He plunders them as he leaves. He punishes Beth-Shemesh for their sin (i.e. faithless wanderers in the wilderness). The ark rests comfortably in Kirjath-Jearim for twenty years, and then there is a new conquest of the Promised Land, in which Yahweh fights for His people. The nation is reborn. This cycle will occur again. Sometimes it happens on an individual scale (i.e. Manasseh’s exile and return in 2 Chronicles 33:1-20). This motif will occur again on a national scale in the fall of Samaria and the exile of Judah in Babylon. The dead bones of Israel are captive in a foreign land, but there is promise of resurrection, rebirth, and the re-establishment of the kingdom. This fulfillment is seen partially in the return from exile. Finally, the exodus motif reaches its climax in Jesus of Nazareth. Israel continues to be under the rule of a foreign power. They are in exile in their own land. He is arrested by that foreign power, tried, found guilty, and executed. Jesus takes on Himself the covenant curses (Ezek.20:34-37). Then, three days later the dead bones of Israel are raised from the dead. The serpent’s head is crushed. The power of death is now overturned. Humanity is released from bondage to death and sin. Jesus (Joshua) leads the exodus from bondage to the curse. He plunders the enemy, and uses those gifts to establish His kingdom (Eph. 4:8-12). The exodus motif will find its fulfillment when the deliverer, Jesus, returns. Even now Christians are exiles in a strange land that is ruled by principalities, powers, and the “Prince of the Power of the Air.” Plagues will fall on this present world order (cf. Rev). Jesus will return for His people and lead a new exodus and conquest into a new land of Promise, the new earth. Only a typological reading sees the significant pattern that finds its culmination in Christ Jesus.

There has always been a struggle in applying OT history to the church. Allegory cancels out history in favor of spiritual reading of the text. Historical-grammatical method analyzes what the text meant, but ends up with moralism as the only way to apply the text, which puts the scripture on same level as Aesop’s fables. None of these methods adequately accounts for Jesus’ claims that the OT was about him (John 5:39). If one accepts that God works in types in history, and those patterns are fulfilled ultimately in Christ, and then are mediated to those in Him, then one can seek to identify those patterns today and apply the living word of Israelite history to the modern church. Sadly, many (if not most) evangelical interpreters are held captive to Enlightenment reductionism that would elevate modern hermeneutical methods above the methods of Jesus and the Apostles.